It was a tale of two goalkeepers and one own goal at Red Bull Arena on an Arctic afternoon in March as the New York Red Bulls opened their 2017 MLS home schedule with a win, 1-0 over Colorado Rapids.
At one end of the field there was a legend of American soccer playing the way you always knew he would, the way he always had back in the day when Tim Howard (for it was him) was a MetroStar and not a Rapid.
A native of North Brunswick, NJ, who started his career with the North Jersey Imperials - in USISL during Howard’s time there in 1997 - and then took over from Tony Meola as the MetroStars staring ‘keeper. In 2003, Manchester United came calling and he was whisked off to the Premier League. And then he spent 10 years as Everton’s first-choice ‘keeper as he racked up more than 100 USMNT caps (and counting).
Returning from a long injury lay-off, Howard started out this game by blanking Bradley Wright-Phillips and went on to deny the RBNY all-time top scorer twice more on his way to a seven-save comeback appearance for Colorado.
An early save with his left leg suggested this was a day Howard had been looking forward to. That suspicion was confirmed later in the first half, when he came out quick to cut BWP’s angle and time on the ball and won the mental battle, getting the RBNY forward to shoot too close to Howard’s body for the ‘keeper really to miss the chance to block the shot. Finally, in the 73rd minute, he watched BWP jukes his defender and try to angle a shot across the face of goal to the far post - but Howard made a two-handed parry to divert the shot over the crossbar.
The one and only @TimHowardGK had quite an MLS return today pic.twitter.com/Utfmp9TTnP— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 12, 2017
At the other end was another goalkeeping legend for the twice-named club that claims both Howard and Luis Robles (for it was him) on its honor roll. Howard made his name at Giants Stadium, in an environment in which soccer was always somewhat an interloper.
Since I can't welcome @TimHowardGK back to New York in person here is a really old picture from the giant stadium bubble #NYvCOL #RBNY pic.twitter.com/wE15OBlUGI— Eric Friedlander (@EF1234_1) March 11, 2017
Robles has fit snugly into the purpose-built surroundings of Red Bull Arena as smoothly and surely as his own hands slide into the gloves he dons every time he goes to work. And it was his incredible appetite for his work that was celebrated at the end of this match.
As soon as it started, Robles broke yet another MLS record: he had appeared in his 142nd consecutive regular-season game, surpassing the all-time league record set by Chris Klein. Currently President of the LA Galaxy, Klein set his record of 141 consecutive appearances in 2009 while playing for LA, after starting the streak as a Sporting Kansas City player and spending a season-and-a-half with Real Salt Lake. His achievement included the remarkable feat of playing 32 regular-season games in 2007, a year when the league schedule was only 30 games per club (that was the season he switched over from RSL to LA).
Robles surpassed Klein’s record with a different sort of consistency: he has played every game of his streak for one team, the New York Red Bulls. And he now holds the all-time MLS (and therefore RBNY) records for consecutive regular-season starts, minutes, and appearances. One unbroken streak of 142 games: all started and finished for one team.
Typically a composed and thoughtful presence in the locker room, Robles deflected an opening question about his record to talk about the result and its place in RBNY’s gradual journey toward perfecting itself and reaching its goals over the course of the long season ahead. When he was finally ready to talk about the streak, he explained he’d already been caught out by the strength of his own emotional reaction to the record when asked about it on the field:
I was little surprised, after the game, how I got caught up in it. At the end of the day, I feel so grateful to be part of this organization. I feel grateful for all the coaches that believed in me. Hans Backe for giving me my first start, Mike Petke for staying with me even when other people were saying 'maybe we should move on'. And then of course Jesse: from day one he was saying that I was going to be a huge part of this organization. So having those coaches backing me has been important.
He reserved his greatest thanks, however, for his wife, Cara, for her encouragement, support, and “hounding” when he was ready to call it quits with pro soccer back in 2012, back when he was a journeyman seemingly at the end of his journey, back “when you didn’t know who I was”.
Red Bulls fans knew who he was after he stepped into the starting ‘keeper’s role toward the end of the 2012 season and backstopped the team through another disappointing playoff exit. MLS fans knew who he was after he played every league game in 2013 for rookie coach Mike Petke, as RBNY clinched its first ever significant silverware - the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. And his reputation only grew after that: another every-MLS-game season in 2014 and a trip to the Eastern Conference playoff final; another Shield in 2015, and the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award; last year’s helter-skelter season that saw RBNY bounce back from a terrible start to top the Eastern Conference in the regular season and then slump out of the playoffs, beaten home and away by Montreal Impact.
Robles has seen all RBNY’s highs and lows over 142 straight league games, plus playoffs and a few US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League appearances. And he’s even worked his way back into favor with USMNT, winning call-ups and caps to the last two January camps after winning his first cap way back in 2009.
And maybe it was those memories, and the recognition that none of them would have happened if he hadn’t listened to his wife in the summer of 2012 when his soccer prospects seemed to have dried, that cracked the resolute professionalism he tends to bring to his media appearances.
In the summer of 2012, Luis was ready to throw in the towel; Cara made him go one more round with a frustrating and opaque MLS process that had shut him out earlier in the year. He tripped over the memory just a little in post-match chats.
Luis Robles Talks Win, Record, Family in 91st Minute ➡️ https://t.co/bRH9JuwTt6#NYvCOL | #RBNY pic.twitter.com/hRbyaJ4tD3— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 12, 2017
Oh, and there was a game of soccer too. RBNY only got the ball past Tim Howard once: in the 45th minute, a low cross from Sal Zizzo whizzed into the six-yard box and Rapids defender Eric Miller could only poke the ball into his own net and tried to prevent Daniel Royer from connecting with the pass.
We get by with a little help from our friends.— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 11, 2017
1-0 #NYvCOL | #RBNY pic.twitter.com/abQujnBM1Y
Once was enough. RBNY kept Howard very busy, and kept Robles pretty well protected at the other end. The Rapids never looked likely any more likely to score than the Red Bulls did to score again.
It was a bitterly cold evening in Harrison, but one which those fans who braved the elements will eventually remember for reasons better than the harsh weather. They saw two absolute club legends in action, one recalling his best days with his performance and the other setting a new MLS standard for consistency and durability. And they saw their team open a new year in the league with back-to-back wins for the first time since 2010.
The Red Bulls have started the new season where they ended the last: top of the Eastern Conference. To stay their, they will almost certainly need to take something out of their next game: Seattle Sounders’ home-opener on March 19.